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'A thorn in their side': Nelson County stands out in its fight against now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline

'A thorn in their side': Nelson County stands out in its fight against now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline

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Pipeline protest Aug 2014 02.jpg

Judy Dugan crafts a sign for an upcoming protest during an event Atlantic Coast Pipeline opponents held in August 2014 at Rockfish Valley Community Center.

Nelson’s North District Supervisor Tommy Harvey described the county’s fight against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline as lopsided — about as lopsided as you can get.

The locality he’s called home, a rural area with a population of about 15,000 people, took on Dominion Energy and Duke Energy and their $8 billion natural gas project. Were bets allowed in this fight, oddsmakers would have made the ACP the overwhelming favorite.

And yet Nelsonians against the pipeline that had been slated to cross about 27 miles of their county came out victorious Sunday, as ACP officials announced their decision to abandon the interstate energy project.

“It’s like an ant going against the elephant,” said Harvey, who also serves as chairman of the Nelson County Board of Supervisors. “But it just goes to show you that persistence pays off.”

Other localities along the planned 600-mile route through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina joined and remained in the yearslong fight, which began half a decade ago with the project’s proposal.

But in Virginia, Nelson County’s pluck, and the commitment of opposed individuals and groups to fight the pipeline and everything associated with its majority partner Dominion, have been unique.

Nelson “was a thorn in their side,” Jesse Rutherford, the East District representative on Nelson’s Board of Supervisors, said of Dominion and ACP.

Added Ernie Reed, the board’s Central District representative and a former president of anti-pipeline group Friends of Nelson: “I think it would be safe to say Nelson County was certainly one of the most critical obstacles the ACP faced.”

It all started on an individual level, with concerned Nelson residents starting to research the implications. They united quickly, though, forming several groups dedicated to fighting the pipeline, the most recognized of which is Friends of Nelson.

According to current Friends of Nelson president Doug Wellman, the group “pulled every lever we could think of” during the six-year fight.

As one of a number of member organizations in the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, Friends of Nelson helped commission studies and reports looking into pipeline-related environmental issues and joined lawsuits challenging multiple permits for the project.

It worked to help start pipeline “compliance surveillance” initiatives meant to keep watch on the environmental integrity of localities on the route.

Friends of Nelson members and others marched and protested with homemade signs — and sometimes with homemade animal masks to represent what they believed were threatened species.

They planted corn sacred to the Ponca Native American tribe, called “seeds of resistance,” in an area proposed to be crossed by the pipeline.

They flooded the federal regulatory agency’s ACP docket with comments, and showed up in person to speak against the pipeline during federal, state and local comment sessions.

Opponents in Nelson set up booths and handed out anti-pipeline literature to hundreds of people at music festivals and farmers markets.

And they got the word out however else they could, through newsletters, social media and even songs.

“Always something churning,” Wellman said.

Wellman, who has been in his position with Friends of Nelson since January, turned to the group early on for information about the ACP, then got more personally involved.

One of his jobs years ago was to try to garner the support of Nelson County businesses in a campaign that questioned the need and rationale for the ACP.

Wellman said he picked up 50 signatures in that effort.

“There’s a level of support in this community that a lot of other communities don’t have,” he said, also pointing to the board of supervisors (which at the time was made up of different members) years ago passing a resolution saying the county did not support the ACP.

Put more bluntly, Connie Brennan, a former Nelson supervisor and current vice president of Friends of Nelson, said other localities “really drank the Kool-Aid more than people did in Nelson County.”

Examples of that defiant stance many in the county took against the pipeline came in several forms.

The lawsuit

Environmental and anti-pipeline groups mounted legal challenges to the pipeline for years after its approval, and the ACP, as it aimed to make progress toward construction, did plenty of work in local and federal courts, too. But until 2018, never had ACP sued a locality.

In December of that year, Nelson became the first and only locality to receive that designation.

Thanks to newly worded regulations in the county’s floodplain ordinance, ACP was required to appeal a county zoning decision to deny requests to cross floodplains. The county Board of Zoning Appeals voted against ACP’s appeals, setting the stage for ACP to sue Nelson in federal court.

The county spent $25,000 on the lawsuit, according to county Administrator Steve Carter, and eventually lost when Judge Norman K. Moon ruled in favor of ACP.

But pipeline opponents, along with former and current county officials, defend Nelson’s decision to go forward with fighting the suit rather than settling or finding an alternative way to allow ACP to cross those floodplains in the county.

“It was imperative that we do not allow energy monopolies to bully our local governments into submission,” Rutherford said.

Service authority denies ACP water proposal

A proposal by ACP to purchase water from the Nelson County Service Authority in July 2018 could have resulted in $3.5 million in revenue, but board members shut down that opportunity.

ACP had proposed to pay $500,000 for the connection — more than 6½ times what a normal customer would have paid for the type of connection required — and 10 times the normal rate for the water itself that would have been used for construction activity near Wintergreen.

However, board members were concerned about being able to “guarantee” the 40,000 gallons of water per day ACP had requested, and had other concerns about the implications of providing water to the pipeline company.

Returning thousands of dollars to Dominion

The Rockfish Valley Community Center in the summer of 2016 accepted a $20,000 grant from the Dominion Foundation, the energy company’s philanthropic arm that is not associated with the pipeline.

The money was to go toward replacing 78-year-old windows as part of the center’s Green Initiative, which was aimed at reducing energy costs. Still, backlash from many in Nelson was swift.

After a community meeting that drew dozens of upset citizens, along with some who supported the decision by RVCC to accept the grant, the center reversed course, returning the $20,000 about a month after receiving it following a unanimous vote by its board.

Members of the center, who vowed to make up for the $20,000 the center lost out on, raised more than $30,000 in response.

Rutherford, when asked about the three major anti-pipeline decisions and other smaller efforts against the project, said Nelson County stands out in its fight.

“I think that is definitely indicative of a group of people who are willing to be passionate,” he said, “and take a stand to Dominion.”

Nick Cropper contributed to this report.

Nick Cropper contributed to this report.

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